Walt Whitman met William Douglas O'Connor in 1860 at the short-lived firm of Thayer and Eldridge, which that year published Whitman's third edition of Leaves of Grass and O'Connor's only novel, Harrington: A Story of True Love. Two years later their paths crossed again when Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C., to search its military hospitals for his brother George, who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. O'Connor welcomed Whitman into his home and quickly became Whitman's friend and an ardent defender of Whitman's poetry. Since their first meeting, O'Connor had turned from his artistic pursuits as a daguerreotypist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, essayist, journalist, and editor (at the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia) to the more steady position of a clerk in the Treasury Department.
For five months Whitman lived with O'Connor and his family, sharing meals at their table. And for nearly another ten years he was a regular guest in the O'Connor home for nightly discussions on literature, politics, and social issues. During this time O'Connor helped procure Whitman a position as a clerk in the Indian Affairs Bureau of the Department of Interior (1865). A few months later, when Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman due to the moral character of Leaves of Grass, O'Connor found his first significant opportunity to defend Whitman.
Risking his own career, O'Connor did two things: regain Whitman a governmental position and assail the forces of censorship in defense of Leaves of Grass. First, he went to his friend Assistant Attorney General J. Hubley Ashton, who spoke with both Harlan and Attorney General James Speed; the former agreed not to interfere, and the latter agreed to hire Whitman, who maintained that job until 1874, when the appointment was vacated because of Whitman's poor health. Second, O'Connor published The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (1866), a 46-page pamphlet that criticized Harlan and other Whitman critics while lauding and joining those who admitted the merits of Whitman's poetry. The label "Good Gray Poet" was to stick, gaining Whitman many readers.
Further defenses of Whitman appeared as letters to the editor and fiction. For instance, letters by O'Connor defending Whitman appeared in The Round Table in 1866 and 1867 (for example, "Letter to the Editor," 3 February 1866, and "'C' on Walt Whitman," 16 February 1867); in the New York Times in 1866 and 1867 (for example, "Walt Whitman," 2 December 1866); and in the New York Tribune in 1876 and 1882 (for example, "Walt Whitman: Is He Persecuted?" 22 April 1876; "Suppressing Walt Whitman," 27 May 1882; and "Emerson and Whitman," 18 June 1882). In 1868 O'Connor published "The Carpenter," a short story with a Christlike portrayal of Whitman. O'Connor argued that he did not intend to depict Whitman as the reincarnated Christ; the character merely represented the spirit of Christ that he thought was present in any good man. Either way, O'Connor's edification of Whitman continued. He also helped to place in The Radical "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" (1870), a favorable piece by the Briton Anne Gilchrist.
O'Connor had always favored liberal and noble causes. In the 1850s he worked for antislavery papers and wrote short stories dealing with the contemporary reform themes of prohibition, abolition, welfare, women's rights, divorce laws, and even spiritualism. His support of Whitman emanated from a similar spirit. However, he and Whitman often debated the efficacy of external, socially-imposed reform as opposed to internal, personally-motivated reform. One night near the close of 1872, Whitman walked out during their debate on Charles Sumner's war policies and Reconstruction legislation (the Fifteenth Amendment, giving black adult males the right to vote), which O'Connor supported and Whitman opposed.
After Whitman's departure, O'Connor's wife (Ellen M. Tarr O'Connor) defended Whitman's stance. O'Connor held a grudge against them both and promptly established a separate residence. Although he visited his daughter Jean and his wife and sent them each of his governmental paychecks, O'Connor would not again live with his wife until just before his death, when he needed her care.
The legend in family correspondence suggests that O'Connor saw Whitman in the street the day after their heated debate, that Whitman extended his hand, and that O'Connor bowed low but continued on his way. Although the two men would not directly converse for ten years, O'Connor faithfully supported Whitman's literary works. Following the reunion of their friendship in 1882, O'Connor allowed Whitman's friend, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, to reprint The Good Gray Poet in his biography of Whitman (1883). O'Connor also provided an introductory letter for the reprinted piece that carried an additional 25 pages in praise of Whitman and his poetry. In 1882 O'Connor created a fervor for the newspapers when he responded to Osgood and Company's withdrawal of its contract to publish Leaves of Grass. The Massachusetts State District Attorney Oliver Stevens, prompted by State Attorney General George Marston, had threatened prosecution unless extensive emendations were made. In fact, largely due to the publicity O'Connor created in the 1880s, for the first time Whitman received fairly steady royalties when his book subsequently was published in Philadelphia.
Freedman, Florence Bernstein. William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight. Athens: Ohio UP, 1985.
Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman's Champion: William Douglas O'Connor. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1978.
O'Connor, William Douglas. "The Carpenter: A Christmas Story." Putnam's Monthly Magazine ns 1 (1868): 55–90.
____. The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication. New York: Bunce and Huntington, 1866.